The Baffling Changes in Adolescents

by Hans Maeder

(first published in The Educational Register 1954-55 edition)

Many educators have been asked to justify their belief in the validity of the boarding school in the face of popular opinion that the home environment for the child is more natural and therefore preferable. At times this question is also linked with the general controversy of "Public school vs. private school." Indeed, one cannot answer the first question without considering the latter.

Certainly, in a democratic country good education should be accessible for all who can take advantage of it, and from this point of view the public school is the most normal institution of education for this purpose. However, aside from the special private schools which have facilities for the special child, the retarded or physically handicapped, there is and must also be a place for the parochial schools, regardless of their religious denominations. In a country where religion and education are divided, parents must have the right to choose to have their youngsters educated in a religious school if they so desire, and here the private school is the only answer.

However, there are other reasons for the existence of private schools. They can do a different kind of educational job than the so often overcrowded public schools. private schools in many instances have been the pilot plants for new educational ideals and methods, and in this way have contributed to public education considerably. Many of the techniques of modern or even progressive education, which are being used in our public schools today, were first tried out and improved upon in the private schools where the number of students was smaller and the facilities for such experimentation better.

In the ideal society it would certainly be best to be able to choose the particular school which is most advantageous to ones own child's growth. This would mean small classrooms with only 15 to 25 students, teachers who were not underpaid and undertrained; physical plants which provide the facilities that are needed for education. Also, time and opportunities must be provided to continue reevaluation and experimentation in education, as all growth is fluid and progressing and needs change and improvement all the time.

The private and for that matter the public boarding schools are quite old institutions, not only in our Western civilization but also in the Near and Far East. Scholars of old, either in ancient Egypt, Greece, Israel, or in China and Japan had schools for the young generations attached to their homes. They must have felt that the daily contact with the young adolescent was essential for the growth of the mind and personality. Although most of those schools were reserved for the young men of the period, our forefathers and grandfathers especially saw the need for this kind of education for young girls. In Europe and especially in England, boarding schools have quite a tradition. They have entered America on a broader scale only during the past hundred years and they are increasing in numbers in our time.

What, then, is the basis of boarding school education, and is that basis sound? It is natural that the early education of the pre-school child, and for that matter of the growing child up to the pre-adolescent, should ideally take place in the home. Here parents, with the assistance of the teachers during the school hours, set the environment and standards within which the child can feel secure and grow. Con-tact with strangers is supervised by the home and the adjustment to society takes place first in the small family circle and broadens out slowly into the school and community of the immediate neighbor-hood. According to the development of the child, his world grows with him and he takes in more and more as his outlook broadens.

At the time of his pre-adolescence and particularly in his adolescence, he wants and needs to take on responsibilities and make contacts of his own. The development of his whole personality, his individuality and his social behavior depend very much on this period. The young adolescent wants to loosen if not to cut, the emotional ties with his family and learn to take steps on his own. This is the time when parents, and often also teachers, are baffled by the "new and strange" person they suddenly see before them. They are often too tightly attached to the youngster and unwilling to allow him too much freedom of movement, with the resultant quarrels and disagreements between parent and child. This is the time for change of environment, this is the time for the youngster to go away to boarding school.

New standards and a different environment develop in the student a wider perspective. He no longer has to fight his home environment with its limiting out look. He can discuss and match wits with his contemporaries most of the time; and the adults who surround him, the teachers or educators at the boarding school often become for him the new idols&emdash;which he could no longer see in his mother or father. Also, since the student does not live too closely with the adults of his new school, they can have a more objective approach to him than, very often, can the parents.

Generally, when such a youngster comes home for his vacations, he finds a great deal of pleasure in being with his parents. A mutual respect has developed which was formerly masked by the daily small disagreements which surround the growing adults. Parents often wonder why the boarding school should "make such a change" in their adolescent boy or girl, and I have had parents who felt rather guilty, because it seemed a reflection on their lack of ability to educate their child. On the contrary, only that child whose standards have been set high enough in his early childhood, and who has felt secure in the environment of his family, can develop such independence as mentioned above. New standards are not achieved where old ones had not been set. And the setting of these standards is one of the fundamental principles of good education. We all desire to have our young grow up as strong individuals who can take their place in society without loss of their personality. The development of this individuality is furthered best in the most objective surroundings of the boarding school.

To be sure, there are many homes where the adolescent is allowed to grow and develop according to his own needs and capacities. But one would be surprised, even in such cases, to see the change which takes place, how much more growth is apparent, after the child has had schooling away from home. Some parents believe that it is early enough for the youngster to leave home when he goes to college, but we have learned from experience that those adjusting to college life most easily are the students who have already had the opportunity to develop their own personality at a boarding school in the pre-college days. Generally they have a more mature approach to their studies, have an easier manner in discussions with their professors and accept the routine of college life more readily.

Certainly, the choice of the boarding school is of utmost importance, and while some youngsters develop better in the more formal and traditional schools which segregate the sexes, for many students the co-educational boarding school, with its home environment and closer relationship to normal life, is best suited. Since educators generally have not yet made up their minds which of the two is better, parents will have to make the necessary choice for their child.

The case of the boarding school is a very real one, and parents should very carefully weigh all sides of the question before deciding what kind of school will be best for their youngster.

reprinted from The Educational Register, 1954-55 edition